By Kevin Wilson
CNJ STAFF WRITER
Mike Urioste called Clovis Mayor David Lansford this week and told him the story of how his construction business went under when he did thousands of dollars in work for Beauty Health and Science Innovations and got stiffed on the bill when the city-sponsored economic development deal went south.
“This one job destroyed the company,” Urioste said. “I am no longer in business. It’s been a strain on my marriage and my finances. I had good credit with the companies in this town. That’s no longer the case.”
In all, Urioste lost more than $60,000 on the job and had to lay off five employees.
It was a story Lansford heard on the phone, but felt needed to be heard Thursday night by the Clovis City Commission — both to give commissioners a first-hand look at the impact of their 2011 decision to provide $1.8 million in economic development dollars, and to provide reason for the commission to find out exactly what happened with the failed cosmetics plant.
The commission, after haggling over the details, unanimously approved the original request put forth by Lansford to enter into negotiations with Underwood Law of Amarillo to investigate the deal, where BHSI promised 300-plus jobs in exchange for economic development money the city has a slim chance of recovering.
Lansford, who defeated then-Mayor Gayla Brumfield long before the deal started to go sour, and City Commissioner Sandra Taylor-Sawyer will work with Underwood to create a scope of work. They are the only two members of the commission not on board for the original unanimous vote to approve the BHSI deal.
The scope of work will be presented to the commission during the Aug. 1 meeting.
Lansford had originally looked at other law firms in Texas, but was led to Underwood on the advice of the Amarillo city attorney to find one with a New Mexico law license.
If the investigation leads to any changes to the Clovis Industrial Development Corporation or economic development policies, the investigation would be paid through the Economic Development Tax Advisory Board fund which currently has $1.9 million.
Commissioners raised two concerns:
• Commissioner Bobby Sandoval asked why City Attorney David Richards was not doing the investigation, because he felt Richards was a competent city attorney and he wasn’t sure of the need to hire outside attorneys.
Lansford said the reason Richards was not a good choice for investigator wasn’t based on any suspicion, but because Richards was intimately involved in the legal proceedings before the deal was made and when the city was trying to recoup its money.
“In order for this commission to be trustworthy,” Commissioner Juan Garza said, “I think it’s very important we don’t get anyone involved that was in the (original) negotiation.”
• Putting Taylor-Sawyer in as a point of contact. Sandoval was concerned because it would be a city commissioner potentially being a point of contact on personnel issues, and Mayor Pro Tem Len Vohs was concerned about a conflict of interest with Taylor-Sawyer’s post as Clovis-Curry County Chamber of Commerce president.
Commissioner Randy Crowder said he felt that Lansford and Taylor-Sawyer were merely conduits of information for the investigators, and Taylor-Sawyer noted that while the CIDC and the chamber work closely together they are not connected.
“In this matter, I am a city commissioner,” Taylor-Sawyer said. “You’ve all worked with me on boards and committees. You really should know my integrity.”
R.L. “Rube” Render of Clovis said the investigation needed to happen, even if the action was only based on the words of commissioners who had en masse said in a prior commission meeting they felt misled by BHSI and CEO Brian Sperber.
“Who do you think misled you? You did not do due diligence,” Render said. “Nobody up there did.”
Jack Muse of Clovis added that the commission needs to be upfront about what happened.
“The only people that don’t want this thing to happen have something to hide, or someone to protect,” Muse said.
Lexi Myers said she wanted to know what happened on behalf of all taxpayers, and for her family as business owners. After Myers received numerous assurances from people involved in the BHSI deal, Snelling Staffing did $66,000 worth of work. It came out of her pocket.
“It was a too good to be true offer that all of us wanted to believe,” Myers said.
Commissioner Dan Stoddard noted that BHSI was not the first economic development deal to go south. He understood the need to investigate the matter, but wondered why the same wasn’t done for other failed deals.
“Had we done that,” Stoddard said, “maybe we wouldn’t be in this position.”
Garza said the $1.8 million amount was a far larger amount than other failed deals. Crowder said he agreed with Stoddard, but called this investigation a citizen-driven issue.
“Citizens have come to the podium,” Crowder said, “and said, ‘Tell us what went wrong.’ I think the citizens of Clovis are what brought this to a head.”